Standing face to façade with a restaurant while deciding whether to commit is the speed dating of the food world. The eatery’s sign flickers at us hopefully, trying to grab our attention without desperately saying, “If you ate here, you’d be full by now.” The menu tries a little sweet talk—promising “house made” dishes “grilled to perfection” and “drizzled” with something that came from a nearby farm, they swear. And the ambiance does everything in its power to convince us through the window that here, in this comfortable, flatteringly lit assortment of tables and chairs, we’ll eat a good meal—if only we’d just come inside.
We suitors, on the other side of things, have our own prejudices regarding the dance of culinary seduction. Many look for flowery menus and rustic buildings filled with happy, eating people; the brazen may even step just inside to examine the atmosphere more fully, scanning coldly past the humanity of the host to spy, ideally, our double sitting at a table. I find myself spouting off overconfident reasons why a restaurant looks good to my very patient friends. “That place serves teriyaki and burgers,” I announce. “The burgers will be terrible.” Or, “Ooh, it has a flora of restaurant guide stickers on the window. That must be tasty.”
Big lines, cool lighting, an ethnic restaurant that actually has people of that ethnicity eating there—there are numerous signals many of us look out for. But are any of these tactics actually effective? Is there a hard and fast way to avoid spending your evening angrily eating a bad meal?
I took up the question with some restaurateurs, because they own the joints and can see past many of the contrivances that lure the uninitiated (like me). Overall, they recommend seeking a consistent authenticity and clarity of vision that begins in the kitchen and reverberates throughout every element of the restaurant, from a genuine ambiance to the menu’s earnestness to the building’s character and where it’s located.
“Does the place look like it fits where it is? Does it look like effort was put into the design and setup?” asks chef Ethan Stowell, the James Beard nominee behind How to Cook a Wolf and numerous Seattle restaurants. “When you’re dealing with a place that feels good and is designed to make the customers feel the way the menu makes them feel, that’s great.”
Telling whether a human being is genuine is hard enough; it’s even more difficult when it’s an inanimate object like a building. Ideally, you want an exterior and ambiance that reflects the tone of the menu—barbecue in a joint designed around the smoker, historic-looking buildings for authentic Old World food—and a place with personality that looks like the owners care, but without trying too hard.
Stowell explains: “If everything is sleek chairs and polished white and super flashy, that’s different to me than having a rustic off-white finish with marble countertops and some ceramic pots around that make it feel a bit more homey.” Different, in that the former ambiance is adopting every inauthentic design cliché, which bespeaks a lack of creativity and care that could translate into the food itself. Beware of Edison lightbulbs.
That line between unaffected effort and forcing it is difficult to negotiate, but for Stowell it’s even visible in the name. “There’s creative, and then there’s going too far,” he says. “And there’s just something like Luigi’s Italian Palace. Really, is it a palace? Is there even a guy named Luigi? That’s too stereotypical.” A good name can convey the vibe one might be looking for and intrigue with originality. Like the name Chason, for instance: Clearly, I’m a great guy. (What?)
Past the sign and through the window, it would be helpful if a random customer rubbed their belly and beckoned you in, but a better indicator is seeing the actual food being prepared. Sometimes a visible kitchen illustrates freshness and openness, a “sliver of that world that you see from outside of the street, and what are you showing the public as a restaurateur,” says owner Kathy Sidell of the Saltie Girl and the MET Bar restaurants in Boston. “If you see yummy stuff in the window, you’re going in.”
Stowell is a fan of this in Seattle spots as well. “You go to Spinasse and they’re making the pasta right in the window, they’re slicing the prosciutto right there on a meat slicer,” he says. “At Din Tai Fung they’re making the dumplings in the window. All that kind of theater stuff is good.” It’s not that eateries without visible kitchens are necessarily lacking, but the more a restaurant is willing to show, the easier it is to assess before sitting down.
These initial quick judgments usually take a few seconds, at which point we walk over to the posted menu and study it like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here’s what you don’t want to see: everything. This isn’t a food court, and while figuring out what you want to do in life is often a long journey for people, restaurants should have this decided far before the menu is printed.
“When it’s too cross-cultural, when it’s too all over the place, that’s an issue. There’s a restaurant I’m thinking of right now that has fettucine Alfredo with your choice of shrimp, chicken, or salmon. You’re like, ‘OK, that’s not a good sign,’ ” says Stowell. “That’s the way people used to eat in the ’80s: They would offer everything for everybody, and let them combine it how they want. But we’ve gone away from that and more toward, ‘We’re going to guide you to what’s good.’ If you’re everything for everybody you’re usually nothing for nobody.”
For Sidell, a single focus is ideal. “There are Japanese masters that have been doing just tempura for 80 years, and extraordinarily so. When you go there you realize how much it takes to do one thing well, let alone trying to do many things well,” she says.
Along these lines, it helps if the menu goes into a bit of detail. Imagine you’re interviewing a steak for the job of being eaten. You don’t want the steak to just say, “I’m a good steak, I swear.” Details like suppliers and cooking methods show that it’s sincere about wanting the job.
“If people are taking the time to use morel mushrooms, they’re caring more. Calling out specific varieties of oysters, where the chicken and beef are from, and all the seasonal ingredients that are out there,” says Stowell. “The more in-depth they get with those descriptions, the better off they are.”
Carrying around a bingo card with all these guidelines is hardly practical and wouldn’t fit in your wallet. But whether it’s fancy or casual, old-fashioned or modernist, you can often tell if the restaurant is full of crap. Sidell and Stowell—hey, not a bad name for an eatery—seem to be seeking a singular vision that expresses itself in every facet of a spot, rather than an unoriginal concept created by committee to pander. So if you’re standing outside a restaurant that feels organic to the city, features an authentic ambiance that lets the food do the talking, and has a menu that’s as personal as it is focused; by all means, head on in.
Should it turn out to be bad, just grab a slice of pizza on the way home. But not at Luigi’s.